Howard Hughes is remembered as a germophobic hermit who spent his twilight years hiding in seclusion in the Bahamas decked out in hospital gowns and Kleenex slippers. Few people realize that the young Hughes, flush with oil money, was a iconoclast who challenged the stranglehold of Hollywood’s studio system. Hughes was also an aeronautical savant who designed the fastest, most efficient planes of the day, and broke solo round-the-world journey records that had stood for decades. And in his spare time he bedded leading ladies, waitresses and everything in between. Imagine what he could have accomplished if he'd only managed to keep a solid grip on reality.
Now if I can only shrink the passengers to fit in the plane
After sitting through Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York - the dream project that he’d waited decades to make - and being roundly bored, I was not thrilled with the prospect of having to sit through another epic (especially after suffering through Stone’s disaster only weeks earlier). The Aviator’s creepy opening sequence didn’t exactly alay my fears - the way it is filmed is more than a bit disturbing until you understand the context.
Following his Titanic rise to fame, Leonardo DiCaprio was christened teen heartthrob and superstar, but follow-up disasters The Beach and The Man in the Iron Mask left audiences cold. His performance in the lighthearted Spielberg vehicle Catch Me If You Can drew rave reviews from fans and critics alike, and reafirmed his place on the Hollywood A-list. Howard Hughes is DiCaprio’s biggest challenge since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and he succeeds in capturing the complex duality of Hughes, equal parts suave and semi-delusional. Through no fault of his own he is repeatedly forced to ‘go back to the beginning’ as Scorsese tries to hammer home his Rosebud. DiCaprio gives a competent performance, but it is the supporting cast that provides the film’s brightest moments.
Alan Alda is superb as the slimy self-serving Senator Brewster, a man more concerned with maintaining a monopoly than looking after the welfare of the public (thankfully that doesn’t happen anymore - oh wait, Haliburton!). Alda revels in the character’s despicable nature, and you will enjoy despising him while admiring his ingenuity. Kate Beckinsale embraces her inner broad as brassy tough talking Eva Gardner, a woman who drank and cursed like a sailor and bedded whoever she wanted. She also enjoys some of the film’s best lines. Both Alda and Beckinsale are outdone by Cate Blanchett’s wonderful take as Kathryn Hepburn. Blanchett captures her mannerisms and speech perfectly, livening up the proceedings whenever she’s onscreen. I simply couldn’t get enough of her.
Scorsese paints a fairly accurate picture of the man, at least from what I know of him based on the reading I’ve done and the A&E special I caught a few weeks back, which makes sense: given Hughes’ character and the events that surrounded him there is little need for embellishment. The film flows well despite being visually divided into separate chapters via the use of different film stocks, and doesn't feel faux stylish or gimmicky. In keeping with the ‘nothing is perfect’ theme, special effects are used sparingly and avoid being too slick or clean.
In three hours I learned a lot about one of the most intriguing characters in 20th Century without feeling like I was getting a history lesson. The Aviator is entertaining, interesting, and boasts one of the strongest ensemble casts that I’ve seen this year, as well as a great soundtrack. While it probably won’t earn Scorsese his long sought after Oscar, it’s worth the full price of admission.